Ella Fitzgerald was only 17 when she stepped onto the stage at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. It was Amateur Night, November 21, 1934, and the young dancer — whose undiscovered voice was about to veer her life in another direction — was fraught with stage fright before the heckling audience. In an instant she scrapped her original plan to dance and instead asked the band to join her as she sang one of her mother’s favorite songs, the Boswell Sisters’ rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy”. Ella quickly won the crowd over, as those in the audience would attest to years later. She answered their enthusiasm with an encore performance of “The Object of My Affections” and won Amateur Night.
Shortly thereafter, Ella started entering talent shows, meeting established musicians and sometimes performing with them. In a few short months she was discovered by legendary drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, who took her on with his band and helped launch her career. Ella was emerging from especially difficult teenage years — her mother had recently died, and she stayed with an assortment of family members before winding up at a reform school and, finally, the on the streets. Webb took legal responsibility for her as she began to tour with them.
After Chick’s death in 1939, Ella came into her own. Over the course of the next six decades, she gained fans across the world, won 13 Grammys and sold over 40 million albums. Yet her career was not without its obstacles. At the height of her fame in the 1950’s and ’60s, she and her band often had to deal with the unique brand of racism reserved for African American entertainers. Sometimes, police officers in the segregated South arrested them and asked for their autographs. Despite the hardships, her captivating voice and trailblazing style earned “The First Lady of Song” worldwide recognition.
Seventy-seven years ago today, a modest young Ella Fitzgerald first took to the stage. We remember and honor her as one of jazz’s most beloved icons.
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